(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray examines America's number one evening newscast, The NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff checks out Grey's Anatomy: the musical extravaganza!)
What do we want from broadcast news in 2011?
Like a lot of people, I follow Twitter feeds, Facebook feeds and RSS feeds, and I read a fair amount of blogs (along with the daily newspaper, which I still get on my doorstep), and yet I frequently feel under-informed. I can’t count the number of times over the past year that I’ve seen a piece of Breaking News on Twitter and have scrambled to find out more information, only to discover that the front pages of the major news sites haven’t been updated yet. And cable news is no real alternative when it comes to finding out what’s happening right now. Given 24 hours to fill, the cable operations haven’t gone in the direction I’d prefer, with more stories, more field reporting, and more actual expert insight. Instead, we get a lot of redundancy, as cable anchors stick with sensationalistic stories for interminable lengths of time, showing little to no intellectual curiosity or grasp as they rely on spin artists to define the political implications of everything. Whereas what I’m looking for—the who, what, when where, how and sometimes why of a newsworthy event—is rarely as politicized as cable news tries to make it. The actual “news” part of cable news could be covered much more expediently.
As for broadcast news… honestly, I rarely consider it, except in terms of its place in journalism history (and as occasional fodder for The Daily Show). Until tonight, I don’t know that I’d watched a complete network nightly news broadcast since the ‘80s, when my family would watch the news every night during dinner. These days I turn to the networks only during elections and “we interrupt this program” kind of moments. It’s never occurred to me as an adult to see how a network sums up the events of the day in under 30 minutes.
The NBC Nightly News has been the network news broadcast of choice for most Americans since before Brian Williams took over as anchor, and is one of the few news programs on the air that’s gained in audience in recent years. I can see why. Williams has an authoritative air about him, aided in some ways by all the times he’s appeared on late night TV and 30 Rock, cracking deadpan jokes. Williams seems like the kind of guy who’d shoot you a withering look or a devastating put-down if you contradicted him. And his show is well-organized, laying out clearly what’s going to be covered and then following that pattern transparently. (This isn’t as easy it may seem; I stopped watching local news long ago because it almost seemed like the producers would spin a big wheel to decide which story should go where.)
The NBC Nightly News (at least as I experienced it tonight), comes in four big pieces, divided by commercials. The top stories come first, followed by other headlines, which are then followed by two magazine-style pieces. On tonight’s installment—March 23rd, 2011—the top stories were the fighting in Libya, the other instances of Middle East unrest over the past 24 hours, and the radiation levels in the food and water in Japan. After a break, the “news in brief” segment covered the freaky spring weather, the discovery of more oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico, and the anniversary of the health care bill. Then the program finished with two standalone segments: one a human interest story about a clinic for the poor in Tutwiler, Mississippi; the other an obituary for Elizabeth Taylor.
So what does The NBC Nightly News have to offer that I couldn’t get from a print or online news source, or from cable news? Well, the biggest plus is the very thing that’s made broadcast news controversial over the years: the agenda-setting. When people claim that broadcast news is biased, they usually point to what they perceive as a left-wing (or even, occasionally, right-wing) slant, which in the case of the all-things-to-all-people network news show is a little too paranoid a reading. (It reminds me of rabid sports fans, always sure that the announcers on nationally televised games have a grudge against their favorite team.) But they also point to which stories get covered and which don’t, and there they have more of a case. Still, it’s that promise of a thoughtfully edited, concise presentation of the day’s top stories that has made any given nightly news broadcast more popular than cable and print. You could watch The NBC Nightly News every day (or ABC, or CBS, surely) and feel reasonably well-informed.
I can’t say that I watched this broadcast without cocking an eyebrow a time or too. The Libya story featured some amazing footage, shot in the field by an NBC crew that was following reporter Richard Engel around Benghazi, on the frontline with a troupe of anti-Gaddafi rebels. While Engel was marveling at one rebel’s toy gun, their position was shelled, and Engel had to scramble to take cover, all while the cameras rolled. Exciting, you-are-there kind of stuff. But then Williams threw it from Engel to Chuck Todd at The White House, where President Obama had returned from his South American visit to a storm of criticism on the left and right. That’s an important part of the Libya story—especially since Speaker Of The House John Boehner today held a press conference in which he read seven questions that he feels the president needs to answer immediately—but Todd’s stand-up piece added nothing. No insider knowledge, no poll numbers, and little in the way of specific examples of the criticism, which was supposed to be the whole point of his segment. (And trust me, those examples would not have been hard to find.) Instead Todd broke down the hard knocks Obama is taking by saying, “Just take a look at any late night comedy show,” as though that qualified as actual reporting.
As for the Japan story, reporter Robert Bazell did a fair job of showing how the Japanese are dealing with radiation when it comes to day-to-day matters like staying fed and hydrated. The talking heads and location footage were a little unfocused, but the basic information was there. Then Williams threw it to Kristen Welker in Los Angeles for a related story about how the FDA had placed a temporary ban on some produce from the regions of Japan where the radiation is high. Again, the information was there—Welker and her crew got quotes from an FDA spokesperson and from locals who rely on those Japanese imports—but as with the Todd segment earlier, I’m not sure Welker’s piece couldn’t have been handled back in the studio by Williams, reading some copy over the footage from the field. (Plus, Welker delivered her stand-up while pushing a shopping cart, which was very local news-y.)
I had a few qualms about some of the other elements of the broadcast too. The “in brief” piece on health care was just a pitch to check out NBC’s website, where Williams promised they’d explain what the health care bill actually does. Meanwhile, the segment on the Tutwiler clinic and the nun/doctor who runs it was heartwarming, but would’ve been more relevant if it had tied back in any way to the health care non-story. And though Williams provided good context for Liz Taylor’s career in his obit, ending with a quote from Joan Rivers probably wasn’t the classiest send-off.
Yet unlike any random half-hour of CNN (which usually leaves me feeling dumber) or Fox News (which usually leaves me feeling apoplectic), the half-hour I spent with The NBC Nightly News left me with some respect for the old-fashioned values of “this is how it is” broadcasting, backed up by real reporting from the field, as opposed to the “Is this how it is?” alarmism of cable news, backed up by the smug bullet-points of political hacks. I’m even thinking that maybe my kids are old enough now to be more engaged with current events, and that maybe we should start switching off the game shows during dinner time, and turning on the news.